Monday, December 28, 2015

The Seventy Books of 2015

This past year I read with eagerness and intensity, and read a lot of spectacular books. It's been a long time since I've read so much, or with so much joy, (even though many of these books are not uplifting), and I look forward to reading more broadly and more intentionally in the years to come. I'll write a bit about ten of my favorites but you can read my reviews on nearly all of these books on Goodreads. I also made a video about some of the books I've been reading as I've been thinking about the role of race in America, and if you'd like to watch that, it's right here

The vast majority of books I read this year were new books to me, but the ones I reread (mostly listening to them on audio book with Owen) are marked with an asterisk.

For a prettier version of this list click here

Middlemarch by George Eliot
This book is perfection. I love the narrator--just when you've formed your ill opinion of a certain character you get drifted some private thoughts or feelings of that character that make you want to like them better. The plot twists! The insecurities people feel about each other! I'm not sure I've ever loved a character as much as I love Dorothea. Reading a one hundred page book is nice sometimes, but reading the last hundred pages of a thousand page book? That is just joy. All the work you put in (sometimes literally making charts of the characters so you remember who's who) all the work the author put in of setting up expectations, drawing characters together to a climax, all of it comes together so beautifully.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Passion by Jeannette Winterson
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Remains of the Day by Kasuro Ishiguro
This book is so incredibly beautiful. The story is simple: A butler looks back at his life in service while driving across England on his first vacation in decades. But the telling is complex and tender: so much of emotion, of Englishness, of nationalism, of blue blood and new money, and the sympathies and prejudices between the two world wars. Sad and tender.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides
The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax by Dorothy Gillman
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This is not the sort of book I usually love. It's super gritty, irreverent, violent, and it's fantastic. The writing is so good, and I learned a lot about the Dominican Republic while reading it. That seems to be one of Junot Diaz' main intentions, with his hilarious and informative footnotes, making fun of his white readers for not knowing anyone else's history, and telling the story with the zip of a comic, and the craft of a poet. Looking forward to reading more of his writing. 
(Not recommended if you don't like to read about: violence, characters who swear all the time, friendzones, or corrupt governments.)
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
A Room with a View by E. M. Forester
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This book is not only beautiful sentence by sentence, even the structure is stunning. There's a central event (the bombing of St. Malo in WWII) and two central characters, and you live through that day of the bombing hour by hour. Between those hours you jump back in time for rich, colorful backstory, so that as you get each successive piece of that day in St. Malo the characters matter to you more and more as their situations become increasingly dire. This book also focuses a lens on the light of humanity. Not always shone, not always seen, but beautiful.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Bossypants by Tina Fey
I listened to Tina Fey read her own audiobook and just laughed so hard I cried a little. So much of her humor is in handing us the unexpected, but I was also charmed by her voicing her own fears and her own perspective on them.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
Pilgrim at Tinker Creak by Annie Dillard
I want to own this book and pull it off the shelf and read it again and again. Biking over the fields near Leiden in January, I would try to frame what I could see in words, and then I'd hear Annie Dillard had the words already. “Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away. You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.”
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.
It is difficult to say how much this book moved me. The message, the fearless pursuit of justice through nonviolence and love, the exquisite writing, everything about this book left me hungry for more. Not only more of Martin Luther King Jr and his writing, but more of his vision enacted in our world today. Read it. Even if all you read is his letter from the Birmingham Jail, read this book.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder*

Beginning Chapter Books:
The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith
Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater
Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes

Middle Grade Fiction:
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park*
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo*
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
I love this book. When people talk about "contemporary realistic fiction" for young people the books sometimes the ground is shaky. Maybe they're already dated like the books I read growing up where none of the teenagers have cell phones. The books that really mattered then still matter today because they dealt with bigger issues than phone styles, but here is a book of today. A book I think will last a long time, and which represents a lot of current issues really beautifully. It deals with PTSD, with mysterious and the scary in social interaction, with mean kids, but also with really beautiful siblings and friendships. I was particularly touched by her sensitivity with issues of school dress codes, and "slut shaming" and exploring how these issues come out, and what they mean. It's also just great. You should read it. And also everything Stead has written because it's all fantastic.
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner*
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner*
Frindle by Andrew Clements*
The House of the Scorpian by Nancy Farmer
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor*
I remember this book being both sad and scary from when I was young. I remember asking, "but why?" a lot of times, but I wasn't expecting it to be so incredibly moving as I reread it now as an adult. The story is just beautifully laid out, plot and character, twists and history, and it makes me happy and pains me to read it. I know a lot of people are rereading To Kill a Mockingbird this year with Harper Lee's "new" book coming out. Let me suggest that this is also a book that could use a read or a re-read. There are many ways in which it twins To Kill a Mockingbird, but I love that it tells the story of a black child coming to terms with the implications of her skin and what it means. The questions this book raised about how much property matters startled me. Again and again people talk about--who owns what--be it land or a new car or people or coats or pearl handled pistols, ownership seems to central to this story.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau*
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
The Crossover by Alexander Kwame
Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke
The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Young Adult Fiction:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
East by Edith Pattou
A nostalgic, emotional five stars for this book. I really, really, liked it. The fable of east of the sun and west of the moon told in a novel form, it reminds me of fairytale retellings I read as a young teen, (Robin McKinley and such), and it was very easy to submerge myself in the story. I found it... cozy. Reading it at a bus stop in the freezing rain was comforting, and reading it cozied up with blankets and tea was exactly what I wanted. If you had mixed feelings about His Dark Materials, but still really like polar bears and legends from the far north? This is the book is for you.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Part 1: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Part 2: Kingdom on the Waves by M. T. Anderson
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman*
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Flight by Sherman Alexie
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Finger Puppet Shakespeare

Partway through gradschool I got the idea to do finger puppet productions of Shakespeare's plays and put them up on YouTube. Originally it was to produce politically edgy productions on a comically small scale, but it morphed into plot summaries with puppets to make it easier to take in and understand. My hope is that these videos will be fun enough to watch that people (even people not interested in Shakespeare) will enjoy them, and solid enough in their content that they'll also be helpful to teachers and students.

It's taken me a while but I have managed to make it happen, because I originally had very grand ideas of sets and props and elaborate puppets, but I kept paring it down to the essentials, and finally got a video posted a few weeks ago. They leave a bit to be desired in their quality, but I'm certain this will improve with practice. Today I am posting the third of the series. If you're interested in watching them as they come out, they'll be posted every other Wednesday.

Here are links to the ones I've done so far, Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and The Tempest. Let me know which ones I should do next, what you'd love to see as a part of this, and even criticism of how to make them better. And please, if you like these, or know of someone you think would like them, please share!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Going to another Baby Shower? 12 more suggestions!

So many of my friends are having babies, I want to buy them all stacks of books! Since that is not financially feasible, I’m making a new list of suggestions. If you'd like to see the other lists I've made of children's books, scroll down to the bottom. I'll put the links there! These are all picture books: six are wordless, or nearly so, and six are books that have a special focus on language.

In The Town All Year Round by Rotraut Susanne Berner

This book is dozens of stories in one. Each spread in this oversized book is full of characters and activity, and you can follow the same characters from page to page as their story unfolds. The older man dropped his keys while he was on his run? On the next page the little girl is catching up to return them! It reminds me a little bit of Richard Scarry (without the text) or Where's Waldo (with stories!). It's a real treasure.

Actual Size by Steve Jenkins

This big book is full of pictures of animals shown at actual size. From giant butterflies to tiny fish, the hands of gorillas or the foot of an elephant this is a science book without feeling like a science book. The illustrations are beautiful painted paper cuttings, and they look almost three dimensional. Steve Jenkins's books about animals are always great, but this is my favorite for its simplicity.

Tuesday by David Wiesner

This book made me want to be a children's book illustrator when I was younger. I've loved nearly all of David Wiesner's books, but Tuesday's story of the frogs and their flying lily pads is charming, hilarious, and incredibly beautiful.

Wave by Suzy Lee

My mother-in-law bought me this book one year as a birthday present. It is painted in black and white and blue, and tells the story of a girl and the water one summer's day. The gestures and emotions are so clear and bright. It's a smaller book, not very tall but quite long, so that the spreads of the sea are open and wide, and feel just right.

The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney

A retelling of the old fable of the lion and the mouse, and how the two are able to help each other. The vast glowing watercolors won Pinkney the Caldecott award, and no wonder. It's the sort of book where you can imagine getting an extra copy to cut up and frame, each spread is so beautiful.

Noah’s Ark by Peter Spier

I grew up with Peter Spier's books and love them for their honesty. You don't usually see Noah's Ark books that include Noah shoveling elephant dung, or the animals looking cooped up and irritable. Some pages have many illustrations per page; some have just one big image over the whole spread. He manages to convey both the enormous scale of the water, the giant ark made tiny in comparison, but also the minute details which make life interesting.

So those are some great books which focus on the pictures, and here are some books I love that give special attention to language.

Max’s Words by Kate Banks

I came across this book in college in my children's lit class and I absolutely love it. Max's two older brothers collect things, one coins, the other stamps, but Max doesn't know what to collect. He decides to collect words, and discovered that they are much, much more interesting than coins or stamps. Through the book he and his brothers become better friends, and the illustrations are just right—full of potential's blank spaces.

Ounce Dice Trice by Alastair Reid

I have never read anything quite like Ounce Dice Trice, and that is a shame, because it is incredible. Creative nonsense in the style of Ogden Nash. I've included the page suggesting names for elephants; he also offers alternative titles for each finger, new ways of counting (ounce, dice, trice is the start of one such example), and there are also lists of squishy words and of group noun words. Gundulum of garbage cans, anyone? It's a fantastic read aloud and while kids will love it, it's the grown ups who will really be in for a treat.

Poems for the Very Young selected by Michael Rosen

Disclaimer: I have not actually read this book. I was going to recommend a different book by Michael Rosen, another collection of poetry, when I saw that he did an anthology for very young children—it seemed more in fitting with the rest of this list of suggestions. Every book I have ever read from this man is excellent, and his care and precision with language is wonderful, so even though I have not opened it myself, it seems like the best book I can suggest full of poetry for little ones. If you've read it, I would love to hear what you think!

The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket

Lemony Snicket regularly and explicitly works to broaden the vocabulary of his readers. This book opens with one of his signature phrases. It begins, "'Composer' is a word which here means 'a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is going to play.' This is called composing. But last night, the Composer was not muttering. He was not humming. He was not moving, or even breathing. This is called decomposing." My favorite of his books, The Composer is Dead is part mystery, part introduction to the orchestra, and entirely excellent. It comes with a cd so you can listen to the music written for the story, and hear the story read out loud.
Amos and Boris by William Steig

Like Lemony Snicket, William Steig makes sure to introduce children to excellent vocabulary, but just works them into his text. When I was reading it for the first time as an adult, I needed to find out what a "phosphorescent sea" was, because phosphorescent wasn't a word I had known. The sentences are just easy to savor. It's the story of a mouse and a whale who become friends and each save the other's life—when the whale is beached, little Amos "races back with two of the biggest elephants he could find." It's that sort of beautiful understatement that I love in this book. Can't get enough of it.

Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss

Last but not least is the wild tongue twister Fox in Socks. Dr. Seuss's books freaked me out a little as a kid. I remember being so affected by a low-tech film version of The Lorax that I was afraid to go in the library it came from—but this one is all about trying to say tricky things. It's great fun to read aloud and faster every time!

Did I miss your favorite wordless book or book cherishing words? What are some other books you like? Let me know in the comments!

If you are interested in more lists of kids books:

12 book suggestions for Babies
More books from authors you already know
Books to make kids laugh
Books dealing with race (feel free to skip my uncomfortable thoughts and go right to the list at the end)
10 best books about Shakespeare

And here's the list of books all together:

In The Town All Year Round by Rotraut Susanne Berner
Actual Size by Steve Jenkins
Tuesday by David Wiesner
Wave by Suzy Lee
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
Noah’s Ark by Peter Spier
Max’s Words by Kate Banks
Ounce Dice Trice by Alastair Reid
Poems for the Very Young selected by Michael Rosen
The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket
Amos and Boris by William Steig
Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Who's Your Driver? Thoughts about Feelings

Riley's driver is Joy
A couple weeks ago I saw the new Pixar movie Inside Out, and was as I expected, moved to laughter and tears, but like the best Pixar movies it also made me think a lot. In the movie, we follow a 10 year old named Riley, and we experience her life mostly through her emotions (the characters, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust.) Without telling too much of the plot of the movie, one of the interesting things for me was the little peeks we get into other character's brains. For most of her life it seems like Riley's driver (the emotion in charge of the control desk in her mind) is Joy, but when we get to see into Riley's mom's head, her driver is sadness, and Riley's dad's driver is anger.

Riley's parents' emotions
When my friend Linden asked me and Owen, "Who's your driver?" it surprised me to find that recently the emotion driving me forward has been fear. That weird little purple character in the movie, frightened of everything. In a lot of my life I think I've varied between different dominant emotions—it's a pleasure to have had joy as a driver for so much of my life—but I like that one of the messages of the movie is that it's okay to have another emotion taking a turn at the wheel. In Inside Out, Joy keeps trying to push Sadness away, out of Riley's head, and that's a really normal thing in our culture. The number one thing parents want is for their children to "be happy" but this movie says (and I think they're right) that sometimes you need to be sad. And when you are sad, sometimes you really need to express that, and you need people you trust and love, who will still love you even if you're not feeling the way they wish you could feel. (For more on this topic see the excellent book, How to Talk so Kids will Listen, and Listen so Kids will Talk.)

But what does it mean to have fear as my driver? Nothing makes me feel more like a child than fear. When I had lived in the Netherlands nine months, I melted down sobbing because I was afraid that (not kidding) no one would come to my birthday party. People did come, and I had a wonderful birthday that year, but looking back I am amazed at quite how scary the thought of "I have no friends" could be, even as an adult. A lot of the experiences that helped me mature into an adult were doing things that frightened me or seemed challenging in some way, and then excelling in those challenges. Now that I am an adult, life is scary in different ways. The next step isn't usually clear. My support system doesn't necessarily have experience in my situation, and so it's hard for me to parse through the various advice I'm getting. Instead of people around me telling me to go ahead and take the challenging opportunity, there is so much cautious advice. When I was younger I felt like everyone was telling me to reach for the stars, and now there's a lot more "that sounds like a lot of work, be careful—don't get too involved, are you able to pay for that? How will that work with having kids?" Not exactly advice to combat fear.

In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey tells some of the hurdles in her own life in hilarious and compelling detail. Near the end of the book she compares her own paralyzing anxiety about her work and the possibility of having a second child to two small Greek children her mother once babysat. These children had never been out of their parents' care in their entire lives, and were desperate, crying inconsolably. After hours of this, the seven year old Christo cries out in Greek to his little sister, "Oh! My Maria! What is to become of us?" which send's Tina's mother running out of the room in a fit of laughter. Those children are going to be fine. Tina Fey's gynecologist tells her simply, "Either way, everything will be fine." It took hearing those words for her to see that (to anyone with a real problem) she must look like the terrified Greek children; nothing to worry about, but worried out of her mind. Either way, everything will be fine. "But, but, but, what if it's not?" I still want to ask. "What if something terrible happens? What if the thing you desperately want isn't the thing you get? What if you work, and work, and work, and nothing comes of it? What is the people you trust and the things you depend on turn out to be not as dependable as you thought?"

Children's book edition of Maya Angelou's poem
In the Psalms, I read that my feet are set on solid ground. That God is my refuge and strength, if mountains are thrown into the depths of the sea—even then "we will not fear." And on one hand I believe it, but it is also hard, because I do fear—even when the mountains are firmly rooted in place. Elsewhere I hear that perfect love casts out fear, and I believe that too, and I am glad that loving is something I can do, something others already do around me to build courage, and tear down fears. Right now, I'm going to try to be gentle. Gentle with other people, and gentle with myself in the face of fear. But I will also try to check in and see which of my emotions is driving as I make decisions. One of my friends wrote me an email full of stories from her life, but also a bit of strong encouragement. She says she tries hard not to let fear control her decision making, and I'd like to do the same.

Life Doesn't Frighten Me by Maya Angelou (excerpt)

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Utah in July

—guest post by Owen

I'm spending the month of July at a giant once-every-ten-years conference in Salt Lake City, my first time back in the United States since moving to the Netherlands almost two years ago.  There have been experiences in every quadrant of the pleasantness/familiarity square:
  • pleasantly familiar: choice in grocery stores!
  • unpleasantly familiar: terrible-looking asphalt roads.
  • unpleasantly unexpected: lack of shade on the University of Utah's wide-open campus. 
Not pictured: the sun beating down relentlessly on every living thing.
But nothing has been so unexpectedly pleasant as the scenery.  Having heard about the Great Salt Lake, I imagined the environment of Salt Lake City to be the geographical equivalent of hard-water stains in the sink.  But it is actually quite beautiful, as I hope this photograph-laden post will convince you.

At a high elevation, there's not much atmosphere protecting you from the sun's rays, so it's easy to burn in the overhead sunlight.  A thin atmosphere also means, however, that it gets quite cool in the morning and evening, so a lot of people at the conference took the opportunity to hike up into the mountains on whose foothills the university rests.  Here's what we saw on one such trip:

From up here you can make out the Great Salt Lake in the distance.
This is the view looking the other way along the mountain ridge.
This past Saturday, several of us rode the earliest possible public transit to get to the Mt. Olympus trail.  The trail is only 3½ miles long, but none of us realized exactly how steep it would be: in fact, Mt. Olympus is the mountain to the left of center in the picture above!  After a few hours, we decided we hadn't brought enough supplies to make it all the way up, so we turned back after taking a group picture at the height we did attain:

The walk back to the bus stop was long and hot in the midday sun, but stopping to rest gave me the chance to photograph this guy, who is about as long as my index finger:

I want to close by showing pictures from two of the local attractions: Red Butte Garden ("Butte" is pronounced like "beauty" without the "-y") and its next-door neighbor, the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Red Butte contains so many different types of gardens, the two times I went I didn't see anything twice.  There's an herb garden, a rose garden, a medicinal garden, a five-senses garden especially for kids... all with signage that succeeds at being simultaneously informative and discreet.  There are places to wander on trails and places to sit under boughs of wisteria.

Some of the plants blew me away with their beauty, like these Blue Glow Globe Thistles:

And these miniature delights of whose name someone will have to remind me:

Then there's the natural history museum: it's located in a really well thought-out space, with interactive exhibits dedicated to the history of the earth (and especially Utah), the flora and fauna that are native to the region, and the indigenous peoples whose culture is still alive today.

But the star exhibit is the collection of dinosaur fossils!  I have never seen so many complete skeletons arranged in such stirring poses.  Some even swayed with the subtle currents in the air.
The fossils suspended in plates of rock are also beautifully arranged:

Several exhibits tried to give you the flavor of what it would be like to participate in an archaeological dig.  Here's a photo of a room where you could try to match cards to the grid squares beneath you, as if mapping an excavation.

I leave to fly back to the Netherlands on Saturday.  I'm so glad to be getting back to the home that I love, but I didn't think there would be so much here to miss too.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Leiden in June: News and Snapshots

This blog post is going to be pictures and short descriptions, because some of you still want to hear how things are and what we've been doing and discovering.


In Leiden there are dozens of tiny garden courtyards that used to be associated with almshouses, but are now simply open to the public. However, they're not particularly well publicized, and I had never been inside of more than one or two of them until this Spring when I went with a friend on a self-guided tour, and found the doors to the secret gardens everywhere.

This isn't even the prettiest one.


In June it gets warm enough that some canals turn green with algee, and some are covered with lilypads.

I like to think the ducks enjoy the lilypads

Butterfly installation

We had been wanting to do some sort of origami installation for a long time, but this May before my parents came to visit we put it together. You can see it here in the dark, as it took us a long time to put it up, but the night is a rare sight these days. This far north in June the sun doesn't set until well after 10, and it stays light a good while after. We have hardly used our bike lights in ages, and sometimes we still wake up confused very early in the morning, because at 4 am it is already light again. It reminds me of nothing so much as a chorale we sang in college choir which ended with a triumphant phrase about heaven: "and there we shall walk in endless light."

They're made from tracing paper

Neighborhood Party

Our neighborhood had a party this weekend, complete with a band, lots of free food, information about a community garden starting up, a place to sign up for helping out elderly neighbors (which we successfully negotiated in Dutch!) and arts and crafts. There were photographs of our park from previous decades, and prints of paintings from before then all on display. There was even an association handing out beautiful gift bags of looseleaf tea to everyone from the neighborhood. Often at festivals I get a little overwhelmed by the crowd and the noise, but this was nothing like a typical festival. We bumped into our Dutch teacher, our friends from church, and walked around with them, and painted some mugs, we felt like this is our home. The girl singing and playing guitar was doing a lovely cover of "fix you" by Coldplay, and we walked around the park, happy and content.

We painted these mugs!

Teaching violin--sometimes in Dutch!

On a more practical side, I'm now registered with a music lesson association and have found several more students, many of which I am teaching almost entirely in Dutch. The children have very understanding parents, and they help me translate when I need help with a few words, but for the most part it's been going really well.

I have no pictures of my violin students but here is our orchid!


Because so many of our good friends are having babies (last count it was more than 30 friends in the last two years), Owen and I have decided that knitting some baby hats is an order, and have gone on a trip to the yarn shop accordingly. It's really nice to be knitting again, as both Owen and I had taken a bit of a break, and find that we've missed it.

Let there be baby hats!

Summer plans

This Summer Owen will spend four weeks in Utah at the 2015 Summer Institute on Algebraic Geometry, and I'll be traveling around Europe for some of that time, visiting friends in London and Paris, and having friends visit me as well. It will be an exciting time.

The park near our flat

Plans for the Future

Some of you have asked what we've decided about staying in the Netherlands, and here is our answer for now. We're staying one more year, so we plan on leaving in August 2016, which is three years total. That means this year I'll be applying to PhD programs, and Owen will be looking for jobs, and we'll do what we can to land ourselves in a place that's reasonable for both of us, and hopefully not so far away from family.

Here we are, married for two years already!

That's the news from Leiden.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

More about Letters--This time with stories.

Last blog post I wrote a lot about writing letters, but looking back at it, I wish I had included some more stories about really special letters I've received. So here are some stories.

When I was deciding which college to attend, a friend of mine wrote me a letter. She was a Houghton student, and studying abroad in Orvieto at the time, and she wrote me this sweet little letter on tiny sheets of graph paper, with maybe a drawing tucked in? The letter wasn't a glorification of that school, just told me about all sorts of things. Weird things- pizza with the homeless guy who lives in the woods, the lovely things- the deep and important relationships with professors, special opportunities that I should look for and things to consider as I look at different schools. The letter itself didn't convince me to go to Houghton, but my friend's writing it certainly influenced me in my choice. It was pretty special to get that sort of attention.

Some of my favorite memories of getting letters are from friends from Deerwander, a really excellent Bible summer camp up in Maine. I remember one of my friends writing to me after 9/11, telling me her feelings, her fears, how shaken she felt. Another friend was telling me about her decisions about college, taking time off, thinking about professional ballet and wondering/fearing what the future might hold. (Just a few weeks ago she graduated from medical school with an emphasis in surgery.) These letters from Deerwander friends were full of recommendations of books, encouraging scripture quoted, lateral thinking puzzles to think about, questions still unanswered, written out prayers for each other, and they were what made it feel like we were still friends, even though there were (and are) many miles between us. A bunch of us started writing letters when we were still in high school, going to Deerwander every summer, and one day I looked across my bench and happened to notice that all six of the people sitting in the row with me had handwriting I recognized from letters we'd exchanged.

After returning from studying in London, I had a strange summer of backwards homesickness. I missed London, missed it dreadfully, and didn't see much of friends with me in my hometown. So many of us wrote long letters to each other, full of shared memories, of hopes for future study, of crazy pipe dreams of living in London again. Those letters were also full of companionship, where we wrote in depth about what we love about each other. I know that sounds corny, but the group of thirty students that went to London together came back strangely unified. We'd eaten together, struggled with difficult texts together, written papers with each other's help and encouragement, sung together, and with each other had had one of the most formative experiences of any of our lives. For me, I know it was the first time I felt liked and accepted by a whole group. I'd been a bit of an outsider growing up. I had some very close friends, but not friend groups, and even in orchestra or acting groups, or homeschool classes I felt a little too serious, a little too far from a normal teenage existence. But the London group was different. My friends knew me well, and liked me, and that was a rare gift. Writing letters that summer felt like a way of holding onto that community, even as we knew it would get diluted back on campus.

When I started dating Owen, I remember making strict rules for myself. I couldn't reply to Owen's letters until I'd written back to all my other friends who'd written to me. Wanting desperately to not make being in a relationship something that hampered my connection with all my other friends. And I think that was a really good choice. I kept a connection with many of my friends, an intimate one. I knew when people were thinking about starting a new relationship, I knew the pain friends of mine were feeling as they struggled with a breakup, or a death in the family. I got letters which told me about the items on their windowsill, or the way they felt about classroom management with their 2nd graders.

I still get these letters-- not long ago I got a letter from a friend of mine who'd been struggling with depression and lack of direction for so long, and suddenly her life seems open and clear, and it was such a joy that I was beaming about it for the next week. I get letters from my nieces, the littlest of whom needs grandma to write for her, but the older one can write to me all by herself, and I like thinking about letters as becoming an intergenerational thing. That I'm allowed to write to people older than I am as well as those younger than me, and that we can have a relationship through that. Sometimes when I get a letter, I take it somewhere special, all sealed up, to a park, or to the couch with a cup of tea brewed. I remember the surge of joy when I'd see a letter from Owen--when I was finishing my second thesis he started writing me little short notes more than once a week. They were funny and sweet, and getting them was such a joy it was almost painful.

In a way my love of letters is part of why I write this blog. I know it's not the same. Nothing like the same sort of intimacy, as it's open to anyone to read, and there's not the give and take of written letters, but I have always preferred sharing my thoughts with other people to journaling privately. I like to try and tap into what other people are feeling, and sometimes a good way to connect is to share stories of your own.

So there are some stories about what letters have meant to me. Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Writing Letters - Not an art lost to everyone

Dear Friends,

Here's a bit of that garland
Most of you know I love writing letters. I've been writing handwritten letters pretty regularly since I was a teenager, when many of my closest friends lived far away. Through college I got through the long summer months and Christmas vacations by writing to my college friends, and then in grad school I got so many letters that my coworkers working in the office would tease me about it. Particularly the letters I'd get from Owen. He and I wrote dozens and dozens of paper, posted letters (well over a hundred, I'd say), some of them a decade before we started dating. When we got married we clothes-pinned them into a sort of garland to use as a celebration of our love so far, and also a bit of joy that we'd be having the same address soon.

It's pretty clear that writing letters is important to me. Why do I love letters so much? Why do I like slow, paper letters in an age of texting? Here are some reasons why I think notes and letters are still worth writing.
From one of Van Gogh's letters
  • Letters show another person that you value them. There's a bit of effort involved in writing a letter, and it's even more noticeable now because there are so many more efficient ways of communicating. Putting in that effort is a great way to let someone they mean a lot to you. I've been very moved reading some of the letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo. They were faithful correspondents for many years and exchanged hundreds of letters, full of encouragement and steadfast friendship.
Vermeer gets the importance of letters
  • Letters emphasize the importance of thoughtful communication. There are a lot of ways to show a friend or a significant other that you care about them, (giving gifts, spending time, going on adventures) but writing a letter puts a special emphasis on communication. If you write a letter to someone, you're saying you were thinking about them, and that you trust them with your thoughts. To me, this seems pretty special.
  • Letters allow enormous room for creativity and beauty. Most digital means of communication leave little room for creative expression outside of the composition of the message. In letters it's very easy to mix written text with pictures or stickers or crazy paper, or include a bag or tea or an origami piece or drawings or whatever else.
  • Letters acknowledge distance, but fight against its pain. Sometimes when I'm flying a long distance I get a little disoriented by how fast I'm moving. It doesn't seem like it should be possible to scoot over a whole country in such short time, and it makes it feel like the distance is somehow artificial. Like it doesn't exist or something. If I'm driving or taking a train I feel like the distance matters. Emails and letters have a similar dichotomy in my mind. Like riding a train, Letters take a fair amount of time to get somewhere. With email it doesn't matter if you're across the room or around the globe. It's like you're pretending that distance doesn't exist. The message travels through "cyberspace" but letters? I hold them in my hand, write with my hand, put them in a box and it takes effort for them to go via cars and boats and trains and finally a walking post worker putting the envelopes in the mailboxes, and then into the hands of people I love. Sure it's a long way, but this letter can make it.
  • Letters make people happy. Because letters are so special, they can make people really happy! It's happen when you get a letter, and if it's a good letter, it can make you happy again and again as you read it later in life. Here's some examples of incredible letters from The Smithsonian Archives.
If you're interested in doing this, here are some suggestions to help you over some initial hesitations.
Letters we've received in the Netherlands

  • Don't know who to write to? Write to your mom. Or another family member. Write to a kid you know. Or if you want you can even write to me. I'm slow sometimes, but I'll write back. :)
  • Don't know what to write about? Write about whatever you like talking about with the person you're writing to. Or write things you wish you said. Say thank you for stuff. Tell "remember when?" stories. Tell them what you're thinking or feeling or what's getting you excited lately.
  • Don't like your handwriting? It's okay! It's probably better than you think it is, but it's also not required for you to hand write the letters. Printing out a typed letter is also great. If you want to improve your handwriting, there's no better way than practicing.
  • Don't know what to use as stationary? You can buy stationary, but my favorite sort of letters come written on paperstuff from my friends' lives. Scribbled in the margins of a concert program or on the back of a pamphlet for a school fair. One of my friends once bought an old book of nature photography and cut it up into envelopes. I also love letters written on regular old paper. Notebook paper, computer paper, paper scribbled on by two year olds? Everything's good. 

So that's my plug for letter writing. I'm not trying to turn you all into letter writing fanatics, but I think it's a special thing and something that doesn't need to disappear. It takes a little time and effort, but to my mind, it's worth it.

With love,

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

More of the tulips

—guest post by Owen

When Clara made her recent post about tulips and poetry, she didn't have access to my photos from our bike trip.  So now that my camera's pictures have uploaded as well, I'm making this second blog post to show them to you as well:

As part of our bike trip, our Dutch teacher took us to the coast at Noordwijk.  The terrain was quite new to us, as we'd never biked over wooded hills or along grassy dunes before in the Netherlands:

And then there was the sea itself!  Of all of us, Clara was the only one to get her feet wet.

Thanks for reading!